Calif. adapts to wildfire by urging people to flee

By Anne C. Mulkern | 08/16/2021 06:44 AM EDT

Teaching people to flee their homes is now part of California's approach to dealing with wildfires.

A burned car remains on a property that was destroyed by the Dixie Fire on Aug. 11 in Greenville, Calif.

A burned car remains on a property that was destroyed by the Dixie Fire on Wednesday in Greenville, Calif. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

California resident Mark Brown knows too well the danger that climate change poses to the West.

A former fire team chief, Brown in 2018 responded to the Camp Fire blaze, California’s deadliest wildfire. At least 85 people were killed in the multibillion-dollar disaster, including four victims who died in their cars trying to escape and a fifth person who perished in a desperate run for safety.

Brown’s now working to ensure that horror doesn’t repeat itself.


As an executive officer with the Marin Wildfire Prevention Authority, Brown is helping to reduce the risk of wildfire and plan for survival if one erupts. Of note are agency efforts to develop evacuation maps and remove flammable vegetation alongside key routes — all to prevent residents from dying as they try and get away.

"We need to make our evacuation routes survivable in a traffic jam, so that even if [people] are caught in a traffic jam, they can stay in their car and they can survive in their car," said Brown, 52, retired deputy chief of the Marin County Fire Department. That’s safer, he said, "than having to get out of the car and flee, and then get caught, and have no protection at all."

It’s part of a shift in the Golden State, where deadly and destructive fires have hit repeatedly over the last decade. Cities, counties and individuals are planning both to prevent fires, and to make sure people survive when blazes start. Because with climate change, fires burn hotter and faster. Fleeing for safety increasingly is the only choice.

"People are realizing that the wildfires of today, the rate they’re burning, the damage they’re doing, the severity of them is not the type of wildfires that we saw 10-20-30 years ago," said Daniel Berlant, assistant deputy director at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire. "People really are understanding that their life is on the line. They can’t wait it out, or just use their garden hose."

The emphasis on evacuations may have saved lives this summer.

California is now battling the second-largest wildfire in state history — the Dixie Fire — yet so far there are no known fatalities. That’s in spite of the fact Dixie has burned more than 500,000 acres, destroyed a historic downtown and remains mostly out of control in a rural area about 90 miles northeast of Chico, Calif.

Officials credited planning that started years earlier, a community meeting on fire preparedness in May and people’s willingness to leave when evacuations started.

“Most people, particularly in this part of the state of California … the remote areas, timbered areas, are aware of what happened in the Camp Fire and also the [2020] North Complex [Fire], and many other areas in the last few years," said Carson Wingfield, incident commander at the Dixie Fire’s Emergency Operations Center, "So when we come through and we’re asking them to go … they’ll go, usually."

State and local emergency officials said they hope a transformation is underway, as California confronts heightened wildfire risk.

Cal Fire and the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) are pressing local authorities to plan more aggressively for extreme fires. The Federal Emergency Management Agency over the last five fiscal years has given roughly $62 million in hazard planning and prevention assistance money, which Cal OES has passed through as grants.

To be sure, prevention remains a top priority, and the state has spent billions of dollars in that area. But there’s also a growing acceptance that some fires amplified by climate change are too ferocious to risk not evacuating.

"These are fires that are burning at record speeds, with flame length sometimes hundreds of feet high, that are like a freight train," Berlant said. "Even our own firefighters, with the best equipment, the best training and experience on their side, we’re challenged to fight and to stop these fires against the weather conditions we’re experiencing.

"We have seen a lot more people, I think, evacuated areas that maybe 10 years ago would have been a lot harder to get them to leave their homes," he added.

Deadly Camp Fire motivates action

While state and local authorities for decades have done emergency planning, the 2018 Camp Fire, in the Sierra Nevada foothills, created somewhat of a dividing line in people’s outlook, several experts said. That fire gutted the town of Paradise, about 90 miles north of Sacramento.

Claudine Jaenichen, a consultant who’s worked with 24 cities to draw up emergency evacuation maps, said the Camp Fire heightened many people’s awareness about where they live and their potential escape routes.

Residents living where Dixie is burning — in Butte, Plumas and Tehama counties — feel the fear of fire with a particular resonance, several said. The area is about 80 miles northeast of Paradise. Many Plumas County residents knew people in Paradise, went there to get groceries or had driven through on their way to Chico, said Brian Ferguson, spokesman with Cal OES.

The North Complex Fire, also in the region, last year killed 16 people.

Cal OES oversees emergency plans each county must develop. Since the Camp Fire, the state has emphasized getting counties to scrutinize and maintain those plans. Ferguson said identifying roads used for evacuations "is certainly a point of emphasis that’s been made."

Wingfield cautioned that the lack of fatalities so far in the Dixie Fire is a "transient” number. There’s still the possibility of finding a death after the fire is extinguished, he said, though no residents are unaccounted for right now.

The region where Dixie is burning also is sparsely populated, and that helped get people out. Quincy, where Plumas County government is located, has a population of fewer than 2,000 people. The total county population is about 19,000.

In evacuations for the Dixie Fire, Plumas County sheriff’s deputies "tried to go and knock on every door and verify that we’ve gone back to every resident," Wingfield said.

That’s not possible in more populated areas. So some California cities are incorporating a new type of warning system: a European hi-lo siren to alert residents. Legislation that passed last year allowed its use, which had been prohibited.

The state in 2019 also streamlined its evacuation alert system. Previously there were three tiers: evacuation warning, voluntary evacuations and mandatory evacuations. Now there are just two: evacuation warning and evacuation orders.

"The ‘voluntary evacuation’ moniker was often challenging for the public to interpret, and slowed response times," Ferguson with Cal OES wrote in an email.

Cities and counties are crafting plans to help people escape. Jaenichen, the consultant who’s worked with 24 cities on evacuation maps, said she emphasizes the importance of making sure residents are given the information in multiple formats. For example, the cities she works with create QR codes that people scan with cellphones to get the information. That helps track how many people access it.

Residents tax themselves for fire work

Jaenichen worked with Marin County, the San Francisco-area region where Brown lives. The county last year put a measure on the ballot to fund the Marin Wildfire Prevention Authority. Residents agreed to tax themselves 10 cents per square foot of building space they own for the effort. It’s expected to generate about $20 million annually for a decade for fire prevention and evacuation work.

About 240,000 people live in the 17 cities, towns and districts that are part of the Marin Wildfire Prevention Authority’s work.

Jaenichen also worked with Laguna Beach, in Orange County, between San Diego and Los Angeles. The coastal city is the site of one of the most destructive fires in U.S. history. In 1993, fire there consumed 441 homes. It forced the evacuation of 23,000 people.

Nearly all of Laguna Beach is considered a "Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone" by Cal Fire. Moreover, there are only three ways in and out of the beach town.

The Laguna Beach City Council in late 2018 — not long after the Camp Fire — created a Wildfire Mitigation and Fire Safety Subcommittee to analyze risk. The council since has approved several mitigation measures.

Those moves include cutting back more vegetation and expanding the city’s outdoor warning system — 21 speakers installed around town. The city also spent more than $197,000 for a study that analyzed how long it would take to evacuate all its residents. The analysis gave estimates for getting people out under various conditions, such as night or day, winter or summer, and weekend or weekday.

In the best-case scenario, with no roadway hazards or closures or smoke limiting driver vision, it would take four hours and 20 minutes to evacuate the city of all its 23,000 residents, the study said. Closure of major roads could nearly double that time.

The city plans to use the results "to update evacuation plans, install evacuation route signage, pre-stage traffic management supplies, and conduct community outreach and education," Cassie Walder, a spokeswoman for the city, wrote in an email.

Nearby in Irvine, officials did similar planning. The city of 273,000 analyzed potential wildfire spread as part of its preparation, said Casey George, the city’s open space administrator. Irvine drew up a citywide evacuation plan.

"We put each part of the city into zones, and each zone has an average number of residents, vehicles and so on," George said. There’s an emergency alert that sends the information to cellphones, so residents "click on that link, and it will show that [evacuation] route that they should take."